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Homeland Security Research Program: Directors’ Roundtable

Research leaders talk about EPA's role and responsibilities in homeland security.

Peter Jutro, Cynthia Sonich-Mullin, Gregory Sayles, Jonathan Herrmann.

Pictured, left to right: Peter Jutro, Cynthia Sonich-Mullin, Gregory Sayles, Jonathan Herrmann.

Science Matters (SM) sat down with program leaders from EPA’s Homeland Security Research Program to talk about the Agency’s scientific and technical roles and responsibilities supporting national security.  Joining the conversation were Jonathan Herrmann, P.E., BCEE, Director, EPA National Homeland Security Research Center (NHSRC); Cynthia Sonich-Mullin, M.En., Deputy Director for Management; Peter Jutro, Ph.D., Deputy Director for Science and Policy; and Gregory Sayles, Ph.D., National Program Director.

SM: Greetings and thanks for joining us. Let’s start with Director Jon Herrmann.  Jon, can you tell us how EPA got involved in homeland security research?

JONATHAN HERRMANN: Following the attacks on September 11, 2001 and the Amerithrax incidents, EPA was asked to help address many challenging questions such as “what are the health impacts of being exposed to anthrax?”, “how can we decontaminate and recover the use of the buildings that were attacked?”, and “how can we detect harmful levels of chemical, biological or radiological contamination following an incident?” In 2002, the Agency created the National Homeland Security Research Center to address these and other homeland security issues. Since then we’ve responded to additional incidents involving mustard gas, ricin, and other homeland security threats.

SM: When we hear the words “homeland security” we think of the law enforcement and other government agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security, not EPA. What’s EPA’s research in this area?

JONATHAN HERRMANN: Our primary responsibilities are to research ways to protect water infrastructure and to decontaminate buildings and public areas. This includes determining whether an attack has happened, characterizing the extent of its impacts, controlling contamination, assessing and communicating risks, getting useful information to first responders and safely disposing of clean-up materials.

While we’re not on the front lines like those agencies or EPA’s first responders, we do have a critical role to play. EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Program conducts research covering chemical, biological and radiological contamination under laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, the 2002 Bioterrorism Act, Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act, and several Presidential Directives.

SM: Can you describe some of the research?

JONATHAN HERRMANN:  Our research covers a broad spectrum of activities along the risk assessment/risk management paradigm.  Our researchers are involved in testing and evaluating contaminant detection, monitoring, threat assessment and treatment or decontamination technologies.  We develop and evaluate computer models and warning systems for protecting drinking water infrastructure such as our award-winning CANARY software, developed to quickly analyze monitoring data and improve the security of drinking water systems.  Our threat and consequence assessment team develops detection methods and conducts research on the risks associated with exposure to threat agents to inform decision-making.

Our decontamination and consequences management team has developed decision making tools to help incident managers find the best ways to manage the waste from decontaminating a building or public area.  

SM: In last year’s series, “Top Secret America,” the Washington Post claimed that more than 1200 government organizations worked on counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence. Does EPA partner with other agencies and departments to accomplish its mission?

PETER JUTRO: Yes, absolutely. Many departments and agencies do have related responsibilities, but we realize that we can each be more effective and efficient if we cooperate. We participate in dozens of inter-agency, domestic and international committees, working groups and task forces where our expertise and the results of our research are used and significantly contribute to planning for emergency response, clean-up and risk communication following a chemical, biological or radiological incident. We also undertake research jointly with other government entities.

SM: Can you give some examples?

PETER JUTRO: Sure. We recently co-authored—together with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the Department of Homeland Security and eight other departments and agencies— guidance for planning recovery following biological incidents. For many years now, we have worked with the State Department to have some of EPA’s homeland security research conducted under our guidance in labs in the former Soviet Union. We also work closely with well protected labs on Department of Defense facilities to help us learn what we need to know in order to be ready to deal with dangerous pathogens.  Bio-response Operational Testing and Evaluation project is an example of direct research collaboration.

GREGORY SAYLES: Through our Tri-Agency Agreement with the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security , we collaboratively plan and carry out research to fill knowledge and information gaps.  This also helps us build capacity in the nation’s laboratories to respond to future incidents.

SM: Can you tell us where you do your research and what types of scientists are involved?

CYNTHIA SONICH-MULLIN: Our staff of nearly 60 work in Cincinnati, Ohio, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas, Nevada. We are a strong multidisciplinary team that includes experts in the areas of chemistry, microbiology, health physics, engineering, toxicology, public health, environmental science, mathematics, risk assessment, quality assurance and quality control, and the social sciences. I attribute our success to the diverse nature of our scientific and technical staff in bringing different disciplines and perspectives to help us reach our goals and conduct our research. Each project is developed by an interdisciplinary team of experts that includes input from stakeholders and partners.

SM:Sounds like you have a lot of problems to tackle and many different types of scientists and engineers involved. How do you set priorities?

PETER JUTRO: We strategically target our research based on risk. Risk is determined by evaluating which agents are inherently the most dangerous and present the greatest problems in decontamination. This is then influenced by information we receive from the law enforcement and intelligence communities regarding adversarial intent and capability.

Not all of our work deals with terrorism; we also provide scientific assistance in recovering from natural disasters and accidents. We continually adjust our planning based on close consultation with our EPA program, regional, and state partners, federal collaborators, and other public and private sector customers to target those problems and opportunities where EPA research can make a contribution or fill an information gap.

SM: Are the risks associated with a homeland security incident different or worse than those associated with air and water pollution?

CYNTHIA SONICH-MULLIN: They are different in terms of the exposure duration and the amount of data available on the contaminants of concern. EPA has traditionally assessed the human health and environmental risks associated with long-term exposures to low levels of pollutants. The risks associated with a homeland security incident include not only risks of long-term exposures but also risks of being exposed to high concentrations of a chemical or biological agent for a short time. We are developing methods to assess risks based on available information to inform responders, residents or workers who are involved in the recovery and clean-up process.

SM: EPA’s research office is focusing on sustainability. Can you explain the relationship between your work on homeland security threats and sustainability?

GREGORY SAYLES: An essential component of sustainability is the capability of communities to effectively bounce back from disasters such as natural catastrophes and terrorist attacks. This component of sustainability is often called, “community resilience.”   EPA plays a crucial role in helping communities build resilience by providing guidance, tools, and technical support that will assist these communities in preparing for, responding to, and recovering from environmental disasters. Our research products fill critical science gaps thereby enabling the Agency to provide sound, technical information to communities of many sizes.

SM: Sounds like EPA homeland security research has been really busy over the past few years. What are some emerging areas you see your research supporting?

JONATHAN HERRMANN: There are a few issues that immediately come to mind that are likely to influence our future strategic directions. These include:

  • Provisions in the recently enacted Food Safety Modernization Act (2010) give EPA primary responsibility to “provide support for, and technical assistance to, state, local, and tribal governments in preparing for, assessing, decontaminating, and recovering from an agriculture or food emergency.”  Implementing these responsibilities will likely engage our research and technical support in finding ways to dispose of food supplies that become contaminated with harmful pathogens, as just one example.
  • The recent emergence of classes of chemical warfare agents not yet addressed by EPA is another issue. In addressing these agents, our scientists and engineers plan to work closely with our collaborators from DOD and DHS. This is an issue that we hope to work on as part of the Tri-Agency Agreement that Greg described.
  • Increased attention to managing nuclear contamination in light of the Fukushima nuclear power plant disaster is a third issue that comes to mind. EPA has an ongoing research project in the area of decontamination after the detonation of a radiological dispersion device—more commonly referred to as a “dirty bomb.” We are particularly interested in how Japan is dealing with radioactive waste disposal. Ultimately, disposal of any biological, chemical, or radiological contaminated materials is an issue that needs attention.

S/M: I sense from this discussion that thanks to EPA science, the nation is more prepared than it was a decade ago.

PETER JUTRO: Yes we are, and I think we have become more realistic about threats as well. We now realize that others’ efforts can reduce the probability that something very bad will happen, but our job is to be sure that if something does happen, we are prepared to bounce back and move on. As someone who was involved in designing EPA’s National Homeland Security Research Center following 9/11, I’m very proud of all that our scientists and engineers have accomplished since then. I know that our research program will continue to find new and innovative approaches and solutions to the challenges presented by both man-made and natural hazards. We will continue our efforts to pursue EPA’s core mission to protect public health and the environment as well as strengthen communities’ resiliency.

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